When I was in my 20s, I used to wonder why the media ran so many stories about life-work balance, and specifically about life-work balance for women. Then I had children. Now I'm fascinated by news reports and articles about subjects such as "having it all" and "leaning in." I also like novels and memoirs about the challenges and delights of motherhood, work, and combinations therein. Here are three books I love because they acknowledge and even celebrate the messy way that most of us actually live.
Fiction and nonfiction releases from Mona Simpson, Julia Stuart, Barry Eisler, Siddhartha Mukherjee and Bill Clegg.
In her resonant and timely fifth novel, My Hollywood, Mona Simpson takes the pulse of a group of privileged Santa Monica mothers, women who expect to have careers and family (or husbands who support them in high style) but who depend upon nannies to make it all work.
Claire, Simpson's narrator, was raised by a mentally ill single mother and continually finds herself inadequate. This despite a modest success as a composer (commissions, performances, a Guggenheim fellowship). Claire feels humiliated because she and her husband, Paul, a TV sitcom writer, live in a rented house. She considers herself dowdy in comparison with the wives of his colleagues and counts on Paul to bolster her confidence. "Paul could always soothe my envy, my ever-long sense of being outside a better life," Claire says.
When her son, William, is born, Claire is quickly overwhelmed. Her savior is Lola, a middle-aged mother with a husband and adult children back home in the Philippines. Lola, a leader in the Filipina nanny network, works two jobs (with only a half-day off a week) to send money home to put her youngest daughter through medical school. Soon, Lola has bonded with William and given Claire a rare sense of calm.
In her gradually unfolding, finely tuned narrative, Simpson shows how, for many women, the nanny-mom relationship grows to be more intimate than marriage. The obvious flaw in the relationship is that money changes hands. The nannies are paid pawns in an elaborate game of social status that includes moments when friends try to lure away the best for higher wages.
Simpson underscores this social divide with sharply etched parallel scenes. In one, the moms compare notes on their nannies while sitting in the kitchen at a dinner party. ("How many times a week does she change the sheets?") A few days later, one of the other nannies shows the group a video she made secretly while working in the kitchen that night. "We see the dark hand of the helper chopping, taking the pan," Lola reports as they watch, "while the women with their shaky small voices make plans for the improvement of their lives."
Simpson also explores the nannies' Hollywood dreams. The daughter of one of them ends up marrying a client's son, a UCLA film school graduate: "House in Brentwood! North of Sunset! The husband works for Fox Studio!" Lola notes.
Aspirational yearning and emotional attachments aside, Simpson makes painfully clear that the future for these hardworking and nurturing nannies is not at all secure. My Hollywood offers a cool vision of the gap between the haves and the have-nots in the city where dreams only occasionally come true.